Rick Perry drops 2012 campaign for president, endorses Newt Gingrich

Gov. Rick Perry announced in North Charleston Thursday morning that he is suspending his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.

Brad Nettles

Texas Gov. Rick Perry made the decision to drop out of the race on Wednesday afternoon, realizing “it was a steep hill to climb” in South Carolina, his spokesman said.

Speaking for the governor moments after Perry made his exit official this morning, spokesman Ray Sullivan said the odds were too great and that campaign finances were becoming too stressed to continue.

“South Carolina really was ‘a final flag in the ground,’ as it were, ” Sullivan told reporters in the lobby of the Hyatt Hotel in North Charleston, where Perry had been staying.

Perry called Newt Gingrich an hour before his planned 11 a.m. Thursday announcement to disclose his plans, and to say he was endorsing the former House Speaker in Saturday’s GOP presidential primary. Perry crafted his departure message in terms of keeping the race going in the conservative vein.

“Newt is not perfect, but who among us is?” Perry said, adding Gringrich is a “conservative visionary” and would be the party’s best standard bearer going against Barack Obama in November.

Gingrich said he was “humbled and honored” to have Perry’s support, and that state voters have a chance Saturday to nominate “a bold Reagan conservative.”

“I ask the supporters of Gov. Perry to look at my record of balancing the budget, cutting spending, reforming welfare, and enacting pro-growth policies to create millions of new jobs and humbly ask for their vote,” Gingrich said.

The Texan obliquely referred to Gingrich’s checkered personal life just hours before an interview with the former House speaker’s second wife was to speak out in a TV interview.

“Newt is not perfect, but who among us is?” said Perry.

Citing his Christian faith, Perry said of Gingrich: “I believe in the power of redemption.”

Perry kept an upbeat note as he ended his campaign. He talked about his plan for jobs, his commitment to conservative principles and his roots in Paint Creek, Texas. He thanked his staff, supporters and family throughout the event.

“I began this race with a sense of calling — I felt led into the arena to fight for the future of this country. I feel no different than i did then, knowing the calling never represents a particular outcome,” Perry said. He added that he’ll head back to Texas “not discouraged nor disenchanted, but instead rewarded by the experience and resolute to remain in the service of our country.”

How much he plans to campaign for Gingrich is unclear.

Sullivan also defended the campaign’s thrust in South Carolina, saying focusing on smaller town visits, such as Summerville and Walterboro, were the type of retail face-to-face politicking Perry favored most.

Sullivan could not say when Perry first considered dropping out, only that the picture became clear Wednesday.

Gingrich will be hoping the move gives him a boost as tries to consolidate conservative support ahead of Saturday’s primary, aiming to unite the voters who had been splitting between him, Perry and Rick Santorum.

Gingrich has been assiduously lobbying Perry officials in recent days, POLITICO has learned. The former House speaker has repeatedly texted Perry manager Joe Allbaugh.

Romney shrugged off the news about Perry’s decision when asked about it after a rally at his campaign headquarters in Charleston Thursday morning.

“He’s a great man. He made a real contribution. He already has to his state and to our country,” Romney said.

A POLITICO poll of likely South Carolina voters released Thursday showed Perry at the back of the pack, at 4 percent, with Romney ahead of Gingrich 37-30 percent. The poll found Ron Paul at 11 percent and Rick Santorum at 10 percent.

It’s been a steep fall for Perry, who launched his bid here on Aug. 13 amid high expectations for his candidacy and the belief among political observers that he’d quickly become the new frontrunner. He announced his candidacy at the RedState convention here the same day as the Ames Straw Poll in Iowa.

Perry’s first round of debates in September provided the candidate’s first big stumbles — the Texas governor often appeared lethargic and couldn’t deliver even his most practiced lines. His position on tuition tax breaks for children of illegal immigrants, and a Texas mandate that forced girls to get the HPV vaccine caused further problems for Perry, but he finished September with a strong third-quarter fundraising haul of $17 million.

The final nail in the coffin for Perry as a serious contender, many say, and the date his fundraising began to dry up, was his disastrous “oops” moment at the CNBC debate in Rochester, Mich. Perry struggled for almost a minute to name the third federal department he’d abolish as president.

“I can’t,” he finally said, visibly exasperated, after his fellow candidates had tried to help him find the answer. “Oops.”

After his disappointing finish in Iowa, Perry announced he would “reassess” his candidacy that week and make a decision on whether to proceed. He announced, via a tweet — “Here we come South Carolina!”, accompanied with a photo of Perry in jogging clothes — that he’d continue on to South Carolina, and ended up skipping New Hampshire altogether. He finished last there on Jan. 10 with less than 1 percent of the vote.

But if South Carolina was to be Perry’s last stand, it also disappointed. As social conservatives try to mount a real challenge to Romney in the state, many have defected to Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich — both seen as more viable candidates at this stage in the race than Perry. A South Carolina state senator who had previously backed Perry’s campaign, Larry Grooms, defected to Santorum earlier this week.

The Perry campaign began canceling events Wednesday and Thursday as the candidate failed to gain traction and drew only small crowds.

Politico's Ginger Gibson and Reid J. Epstein contributed to this report.